Thinking Deeper

12 03 2016

I saw a “bumper sticker thinking” post recently on Twitter that said, “Teach from your feet, not your seat.” And at first, I nodded and agreed. It seemed to make sense. And it rhymed.

But then I thought about it for just a moment longer. And I’m not sure I can agree.

You see, I like to create student centered, democratic classrooms where the teacher isn’tScreen Shot 2016-03-10 at 11.46.36 AM.png the focus but that the work the students are doing is. That means that I may not be
standing and pontificating at the students hardly ever. It might mean that I’m sitting right next to them, talking closely and individually, based on what that child needs. It might mean that I’m an embedded participant in my own classroom. It might mean that because my students are truly engaged, I don’t have to walk and stand next to them at regular intervals to keep them on task. It might mean that our furniture is something other than desks in rows and I can pull a chair up next to almost any child in the classroom.

Do I wholly disagree with the bumper sticker quote? Not necessarily…and truth be told,  my ear likes that it rhymes. It’s catchy. And I’m sure there are situations where it is accurate. Who knows…I’m not even sure it’s meant to be taken literally…but I can only take it by the words that were used.

And that’s the problem with bumper sticker thinking: it’s not always accurate if you think a little longer beyond your first reaction. It feels good in the moment and we feel we’re actually doing something good. Woo! But where does that leave us?

So today when we see education quotes that come across our social media feeds, I encourage us all to think a little longer and to consider the words a little deeper. Let’s truly ponder the types of classrooms we want to have with the kids we currently serve. And let’s consider the educators we want to be for those kids.





9 Hooks and 6 Powerful Ways to Deliver Them for a Bulls-Eye PBL Launch

10 03 2016

It’s an educational holy grail to have a classroom full of engaged students, telling us what they want to study and hitting all the marks that we know they need to in order to be ready for their futures. We dream of being able to walking a classroom where we ask, “Hey y’all! What do you want to learn this semester?” and we’re met with a clamor of student-generated thoughts and ideas coming straight from the students’ passions! And lo and behold, those thoughts and ideas all have perfect handles on which we would then hang our Social Studies and Science and Math, and Reading, and Writing and … standards! Wow! What a wonderful world this would be.

*snap back to reality*

Does this ever really happen? Is there such a magical, captivating classroom? A splendid and supernatural school?

"What do you know?" hook

“What do you know?” hook

Actually, yes, I think this — or a very close approximation — can and does happen in pockets around the US. But is it the norm? Can we expect it to ever be the norm? Weeellll…we can hope, but I’m not sure we can expect it to be happening in every classroom with every teacher any time soon.

So then if you’re a normal teacher who teaches normal kids (whatever that means) and especially if you’re new to PBL, you know you aren’t going to just hand them your challenge. You know we want to grab their attentions first to warm them up to the challenge or question ahead. And that means that you’re going to want to kickstart your PBL units at first. And yes, these units might also have to smell a little bit like school in places because if you’re normal, you probably have certain academic standards and expectations to uphold in your classroom, right? Yep. Me too.

A question I get from teachers is how to vary those kickstarts, or PBL launches, those moments where we hook the kids’ interests; where we create a story, scenario, challenge, or question that begs to be answered. We want a variety of ways to grab kids’ attention and there’s no better way to figure out what hooks our kids than to look at the media that grabs them daily. Consider their sense of humor. Consider what makes their eyes wide and jaws drop. Consider what evokes various emotions. The one thing you will learn by varying your launches is what makes your kids — and may kids of that age group — get excited. What a wonderful opportunity and a powerful tool for any teacher to have in her pocket.

Below I’ve outlined 9 types of dynamic launches, 6 powerful ways to deliver that compelling launch, and a handful of pro-tips to remember when setting up your launch for your kids.

Questions that lead to a powerful hook:

  1. Is it a movie or video game trailer that shows some exciting action?
  2. Is it a trailer that provides some intriguing scenario or question that we just have to dig into?
  3. Is it a story that pulls at our hearts?
  4. Is it a story that leaves a piece of the puzzle unsolved?
  5. Is it a challenge handed to us from some outside person or entity?
  6. Is someone hiring us for a job?
  7. Are we saving lives?
  8. Are we saving the world?
  9. Is it something that matters?
"Hmmm and what do you think we could do about that?"

“Hmmm and what do you think we could do about that?”

Ways to deliver that hook to create the perfect launch event:

  1. Tell a scenario story yourself. Bonus points if it’s a true story that kids can confirm online. If you’re telling the story, be sure you’re a good story-teller. Get into it! Get silly or dramatic. It’s ok. You know your a nerd, right? All teachers are. And if you’re not a storyteller like that, find a colleague who is and ask them to help. I’m thinking your friendly librarian does this sort of thing all the time with book talks, right?
  2. Find a video online that you know will hook the kids. Be careful — this seems like an easy solution, but the video must be tuned to your kids’ interests as well as your goals for the project. Be sure it’s a bullseye, because a near miss will only cause the kids to roll their eyes and your PBL will fizzle on the launch pad. It’s better to have a little more effort on your part at the beginning, making your own video to ensure a spot-on powerful launch than to take the easy route and create a lukewarm interest.
  3. Invite someone in to tell a story or to provide the challenge. Could it be a total stranger (think education faculty at a nearby university) or could it it be a parent in your school? Or an administrator? Or a colleague at another school? If the hook is interesting and the kids recognize a parent pretending to be the Secretary of the UN or the President of the US, they’ll often forgive you and go along with you just because it was unexpected and funny (true story). Just write a script for that person so they share what you need them to. DO NOT make them make it up themselves or the chances are they’ll go off-mark and the PBL is dead in the water.

    "Gather round as I tell you a story..."

    “Gather round as I tell you a story…”

  4. The story or situation being shared by another person doesn’t have to be in real time. It can be a video. Tell the kids you received the video instead of a livestream because the person … is in another timezone? Or isn’t able to talk in real life for some tasty reason.
  5. Set up a “found scene” and have kids come take a look at it (i.e. crime scene or location-based challenge). Now the hook is getting tangible.
  6. Pro-level launch: get a kid involved in the scenario. Have them play along with you to corroborate the story. Or to even deliver the story. Consider having an older talented student launch a scenario for younger kids. What a great opportunity for both levels!

 

Important tips to remember about designing your launch:

  • Keep the launch short. And “short” is relative. Sometimes a 30 second video is all that’s needed. But more likely, we’re looking at 2-7 minutes as a ball-park figure. Long enough for them to sink their teeth in. Short enough to leave them wanting more. And if you’re using a guest, do NOT let him/her ramble on. This is where pre-planning and even possibly you writing their script is very useful!
  • Keep the stakes to failure high. We want to succeed. We have to succeed. Will there be mistakes along the way? Yep! But ultimately, what we come up with has to be the very best we can make it!
  • Keep the launch scenario interesting to the kids — not necessarily interesting to us. We’re nerds. We LOVE our subject areas and think that there are really interesting parts all over it. But do the kids love our subject as much as we do? Look at it through your kids’ point of view. If it’s not interesting to them, start again. Spoiler alert: sometimes we have to be a bit immature (can we say middle school boy?) and way outside the box to capture their minds and bring them back to us.
  • The launch event must cause a need to know in the kids. They are compelled to want to dig in. They can’t help themselves! “Let me at it!”
  • Do something different each time you launch a project. Novelty attracts and holds attention. If you get into a rhythm of predictability, the kids’ interest will wane.
  • If you use a guest to launch, be sure to provide a script for them in advance and quickly release them from further questioning by saying to them (in front of the kids) that you know they’re very busy people and that you received their memo with all the extra details in your email. Thank your guest for their time and let them go quickly so you can answer the kids’ additional questions from the “memo you received” from the guest. In actuality, you wrote the script and the details, but the kids won’t know that. And if they do know that, laugh and ask them to go along with you. They usually will if the launch event has been fun.
  • Lastly, your launches will get better the more you do them. Try out many different ways to grab the kids’ interest and see what works for you and for them. Above all else, keep trying!

And now you have them launched, it’s time to help them set the expectations to ensure high quality work because they know it matters! But that’s another post for another time… 😉

What are some of your favorite ways to launch kids into their learning?





Do You Know What You’re Looking For?

22 12 2015

Often, I get to do walk-throughs with Principals who are looking for guidance with supporting their teachers who are trying to embrace Project, Problem, or Passion-Based Learning. I say I get to do this often, but I don’t think it’s often enough because in nearly every single workshop I give, I hear the same general fears from teachers who have bought in to PBL.

They beg me.

“Would you please tell my administrator that this is what s/he should be looking for? I keep getting dinged on ______.”

Sometimes it’s that they’re literally off-script from the colleague down the hall or across town. Sometimes it’s because they’re not using the lesson plan template that all teachers K12 are required to use in the district. Sometimes they’re not posting the learning objectives on the wall each day, effectively uncovering the mystery (read as: learning) for the kids before they even get to dig in to the day’s work.

IMG_7688

Working with teachers and students together are always the best days!

But before you get too excited about me bashing the PBL-newbie administrator, I also get to see walk with terrific administrators to visit teachers who are absolutely dead-sure they’re fostering a PBL setting for their kids when in fact, they are not. I hear the voices of too many teachers echoing the same things:

“Yeah, we do PBL. We’ll start the project right after I teach them the basics because I want them to have a good foundation so they don’t struggle or fail. And then we’ll practice the standards. And then after I know all the kids have the learning in place, we’ll start this project. I’ll give them lots of checklists so I can be sure every single kid is getting the exact same learning experience, because there are things they just not able to “discover.” But of course all the kids can take my — I mean their  project as far as they want to. And yes, I ask the kids questions to guide their learning. Of course. What teacher doesn’t? Besides, the kids don’t like it when I ask them things that are too abstract or that they don’t have an answer to. Because parents. Because college.” 

Right. That’s not PBL. It’s maybe fun. And it’s maybe something your kids do well. It might be “doing projects,” but baby, it ain’t PBL.

And so I’ve decided to borrow an idea from McRel’s Power Walkthrough and change it up to fit the specific — and flexible — needs of the PBL classroom.

Not familiar with the Classroom Instruction that Works walk through advice? Check out the first minute or so of the following video:

 

Let me be clear: I’m a big fan of administration getting into classrooms on a regular basis. I’m also a fan of the administrator being the a curriculum and learning leader for the community. So toward that end, I have fully bought into the 5-minute walkthrough concept. Go in often. Look. Take observations. Then talk with the teacher.

But I’m also a fan of curriculum coaches doing the same thing.

And I’m also a fan of colleagues observing each other, especially in a PBL community. And especially cross-curricular colleagues. Let’s get into one another’s rooms, for a purpose, with an objective tool to help guide the conversations that will drive our own professional learning — and application — deeper.

So toward that end, I’ve created a PBL walkthrough Google Form based on my past 10 years of experience as a PBL teacher and consultant/keynote, working to support budding PBL students and educators across the globe with the LifePractice PBL curriculum.

A couple words first:

  1. In order to get the best experience with the form, both the observer and observed will want to be fully PBL trained. If you don’t have a common understanding of why and what it looks like, the conversations could really go off the rails.
  2.  If you’re wondering why I didn’t include _____ (fill in topic of your choice), look again. It might be there, included within another concept — hence, the need for high-quality PBL training (more than a 1-day drive-by). I’ve designed the form to be brief. A snapshot. After all, you’re in there for only 5 or so minutes. It’s not an evaluation. It’s meant to capture a snapshot and then spark further discussion.
    Full disclosure, this is my 3rd attempt at a comprehensive walk-through form. The previous two got to be so cumbersome, I had to cut them loose. I think I found a good combo here.
  3. This is intended to be used on a mobile device with grades 3-12+. I believe that PBL works well at a primary level. It simply looks a little different. If you’re interested in a primary-level PBL walkthrough form, please let me know in the comments.
  4. I would expect that the observer would make his/her own copy and collect the data into a spreadsheet. If the info needs to be sent to the teacher, a quick screen-capture of the form before submitting could be sent before hitting “submit.” (thanks for that idea, Kevin Case!)

My last words of encouragement here:

There are many, multiple ways to do Project/Problem/Passion-Based Learning right. Don’t get stuck in tunnel-view as you’re visiting classrooms. Are the students learning by doing? By answering a big question? By solving a big problem? Then they’re doing PBL.

Please take a look at the LifePractice PBL Google Form here

Contact me if you like it and want your own copy of the editable form.

And please, if I am missing something, please leave a comment and let me know!


In 2006 with 12 years of traditional classroom experience and 2 days of formal PBL training in her pocket, Ginger Lewman started a middle school, grades 5-8, that was a 1:1 laptop and Project Based Learning environment. Five years later, the middle school had doubled in population twice and had expanded to include PBL in grades K-8. They were also in the process of opening a PBL high school the next fall. Ginger now works with school leaders in helping them learn how to support the PBL shift, and inspires their teachers to take the leap. Meanwhile, she also continues to co-teach with K-12 teachers in the training process, keeping her own teaching chops sharp and ready.  Her book, LifePractice Learning, is coming out soon! 

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.42.52 PM

Sharing PBL is my mission.





15 Common PBL Mistakes | mistake #13: too much too soon

13 01 2015

I have the best job in the world. On a regular basis, I’m given the extraordinary fortune to talk with teachers who are embarking on a PBL journey with their students. To dig into the smaller, everyday details of how to make this type of learning environment work. To answer the tough questions about sustainability, rigor, behavior management and then take the questioner further…that’s like chocolate to me! I can’t get enough.

Over the years of starting my own PBL school and learning in a baptismal fire, I’ve been able to find a way to talk with new or reluctant teachers about their concerns. Additionally, there are things that excited, energetic teachers might want to consider as they take their first steps into the PBL fire as well.

In the next month or so, I’ll be publishing a regular series to include 15 common mistakes that educators make and some solutions they might consider. Here’s the next one in the series:

Mistake #13:
Expect too much, too soon with no plans for adjustment.

Problem: This mistake is related deeply to Mistake #9  (mandating all teachers fully participate, right now). Not all teachers have the temperament for letting go of the traditional approach to teaching, meaning being the deliverer of high-quality information and ensuring all students are exposed to the same materials, equally. Not all teachers are willing to let go of what is mostly working for them to grab on to something that doesn’t have the 122 year track record that our current system does. And what happens when you find that your community didn’t embrace the change in the same way you thought they would, based on what was promised to them in the initial meetings?

Solution: Again, unless that’s a magic wand in your pocket, there must be some room built in for adjustment and growth as the teachers, students, parents, and community learn what this looks like in their world. They will help define it. And remember, there are many, multiple right answers for how how to do PBL right. Are the students (and teachers) learning by doing? Then you’re on the right track. Make it work so that we can have more student-direction, more real-world application, more community involvement, more content integration, more student-ownership. There’s always the next level of goal to attain, so start with manageable chunks.

Want to learn more about Project/Problem Based Learning and how to support it?


In 2006 with 12 years of traditional classroom experience and 2 days of formal PBL training in her pocket, Ginger Lewman started a middle school, grades 5-8, that was a 1:1 laptop and Project Based Learning environment. Five years later, the middle school had doubled in population twice and had expanded to include PBL in grades K-8. They were also in the process of opening a PBL high school the next fall. Ginger now works with school leaders in helping them learn how to support the PBL shift, and inspires their teachers to take the leap. Meanwhile, she also continues to co-teach with K-12 teachers in the training process, keeping her own teaching chops sharp and ready.  








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